Book Review: “Eleanor & Park” by Rainbow Rowell

As a birthday gift to myself I bought two books from Aladdin. One was The Catcher in the Rye which I did not enjoy and the other was suggested to me by a friend. She had heard that it was the teen romance novel. I sort of shrugged but then saw it was by Rainbow Rowell. I enjoyed two of her other works Pumpkinheads and Fangirl. (Although I did cringe a lot during Fangirl.) It seemed like a good Valentines day read.

It’s not a good Valentine’s day read. It feels like about 5 or 6 different after school special topics crammed into the same book. It’s set in a time period before I was born and before guns were banned near/in school’s. The book was written in 2013 and seems to be a bit nostalgic for the past. It’s heralded as a romance yet I cannot get past all the awful things one of the main characters is dealing with.

In August of 1986 there are two teens. One is Park who is half Korean. (Fun fact that I couldn’t get over throughout the book. Park or 박 is a very common last name in Korea. It’s the third most popular last name in Korea.  So it was kind of like a character with a last name for their first name and it drove me nuts.) Park isn’t popular but he’s not really bullied either. He’s one rung above being bullied and he’s nervous and trying to keep his head down to keep from being bullied. Then one day a larger girl with bright curly red hair and a weird fashion sense gets on the bus and no one lets her sit with them. He realizes she’s just asking to be bullied with the way she dressed and looks (yikes) and there’s nowhere for her to go. Frustrated with the scene he curses at her and tells her to sit next to him. That is Eleanor.

Eleanor is very smart and good in school and just moved back in with her family, aka her mother, many younger siblings and her mother’s boyfriend now husband. She’s been gone for a year.  Since she’s been gone her family has moved into a very small house where the bathroom is practically in the kitchen, there’s no phone, it’s on the edge of the elementary school and there’s no door to the bathroom. She’s the oldest of five and is surprised at having moved home and not gotten a warm greeting from her little siblings and realizes her step father has wooed them all over to his side.

Eleanor’s family is poor. She doesn’t even have a tooth brush. Which I don’t understand. Surely she had a toothbrush from the neighbors she’d stayed with for a year, right? Or has she gone with over a year of not having a toothbrush to her name?  Her clothing is usually baggy men’s clothing from her head to her shoes and literally sharp. Park usually comments on he appearance more so then we see her talk about it.

Today the girl was wearing a giant men’s shirt with seashells all over it. The collar must have been really big, like disco-big, because she’d cut it, and it was fraying. She had a man’s necktie wrapped around her ponytail like a big polyester ribbon. She looked ridiculous.”

If you don’t want people to look at you, Park had thought at the time, don’t wear fishing lures in your hair. 

Maybe one of my least favorite things in high school was how what you wear is supposed to be how you present yourself to the world and how it’s supposed to be a huge part of everyone’s identity. You apparently know a lot about a person by what they wore. But people can’t always afford or find the clothing that speaks to them.

“Eleanor was right. She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.”

But in books it does mean a lot. On a base level one could say that Eleanor’s clothing where she dresses in men’s clothing comes from hand-me-downs. She’s the oldest so maybe the men’s clothes she ends up with are just the only things that will fit her larger frame that they can find in the Goodwill. And thus I’m fairly annoyed about everyone in the book judging her for what she wears. But there’s also another side to it. She doesn’t want to draw attention to herself, she doesn’t want to be sexualized and so she’s trying to express herself while also covering herself up or putting actual dangerous sharp things on her clothing and self like a cactus to keep people away. I think it’s a bit of a mix of both. She only talks about her clothes a couple times, and for one of them she says how she’s taken pins with bits of fabric and other things to cover up the holes in her clothing because she can’t afford anything new.

“I look like a hobo?”
“Worse,” he said. “Like a sad hobo clown.”
“And you like it?”
“I love it.”

On top of all of these things her step father is abusive, he has a gun and uses it to scare off kids playing on the elementary school yard outside of school hours. She’s bullied by the kids on the bus and the girls in her gym class for her red hair and size. And some creep has been writing explicitly lewd comments on her textbooks.

“I don’t like you, Park. Sometimes I think I live for you”

For me I was so distracted and concerned for Eleanor that Park felt like a side character rather than a main character and his troubles paled in comparison to hers. The romance felt like an after thought. Like yes, there were romantic moments but there was this dread for me the entire book waiting for the smoking gun to go off. It felt like her relationship with Park was one of the few things keeping her afloat. I like happy romance novels for me this wasn’t a happy romantic book. It was just a sad harsh reality and it bummed me out. It’s one of those books though, like The Catcher in the Rye where I wonder if I’d read it as a teen (Although it came out when I was in college) if I’d enjoy the romantic aspect of it more rather than the actual concern I had for Eleanor the entire time.

Have you read Eleanor & Park? What did you think?

Update July 2020

The movie adaptation for this book is starting to become a reality. A couple things that stuck out to me about Park’s character and rubbed me the wrong way are actually better explained by people who saw and read the racism and red flags within the book for what they were and have explained how problematic the book is. There’s a lot of things I didn’t like within this book and a lot of things that due to my ignorance just flew under the radar. So before you grab the book or check out the movie I recommend reading the following.

The Problem with Eleanor & Park  by Chantal Cheung

What’s your opinion on Eleanor & Park by Ellen Oh

Eleanor & Park: Where romance and racism seem to go hand and hand by Rachel Sun

 this thread on twitter by Naomi Giddings who recommended the above readings as well as expanded upon the entire situation and concerns with the upcoming movie.

Angry Girl Review: Eleanor and Park by Wendy Xu

A Review of the Notoriously Racist Novel: Eleanor and Park by parkourdeer

I’m sure there are more, and I highly recommend reading these to better understand the racism towards Park, the Korean American boy as well as other racist themes within the book and how they’re harmful.


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